If the announcement of the repeal of farm laws was timed as a candid pitch for voters in Punjab and UP, it can now cut both ways. How the opposition in UP, and the ruling party and AAP in Punjab, tweak the narrative to its own advantage.
Sat Sri Akaal. The announcement of the repeal of the three farm laws — a cornerstone of the bouquet of economic reforms of the Narendra Modi government — by the prime minister on Friday makes it impossible to not see the trajectory of Gurpurab 2021 leading to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh elections 2022. As Modi stated frankly — we tried to convince you that the reforms are for your good, we failed, so we’re pulling them out.
Still an announcement, and yet to go through the turnstile of Parliament to become ‘unlaw’, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act were passed by Parliament in September last year. Their ostensible aim was to pry open the agricultural market, especially for smaller farmers, allowing them to trade their produce outside markets operating under state Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs). A significant section — if not majority, large enough to matter —read the laws’ intent and purpose very differently: to weaken the safety net of the APMC markets and lessen the demand for their produce. And whichever way one looks at it, this significant section has won a significant victory.
This intended and perceived function of the farm laws remained the same from their inception in September 2020 till their proposed rejection 14 months later. What now matters is who will get credit for the rollback and reap the political rewards.
GoI, as first-(re)mover will be keen to come across, as the PM’s announcement tried to, as a government that listens to its people. Whether this is what will be perceived by people, especially those voters in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh now sowing their rabi crop with relief, is another matter. One of the USPs of the Modi government is its ‘tough love’, with its ‘mai-baap state knows best’ approach most famously demonstrated in the demonetisation project in November 2016. Rollback is not what this government does or wants to be remembered for.
Reacting to the U-turn, NITI Aayog former vice-chairman and Columbia University economist Arvind Panagariya told me, ‘Anyone who can mobilise a few thousand Indians and block the national highways for a long time can hold the entire nation hostage to its demands. It is a very sad day. Farmers from states that did not agitate have been punished.’ But it’s not just those supporting the farm laws who will see this government in a poor light. Even those celebrating the announcement see a juggernaut that can also be made to reverse.
Which is where opposition parties — whether the de-Captained Congress and ascendant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab or the Samajwadi Party (SP) and free-floating outfits in UP — could dial up the fact of a GoI ‘loss’. It won’t take much campaign savviness for them to underline the fact that it was the Modi government that brought in the laws that they had opposed all along, and that repealing them is not so much ‘listening to the voice of the people’ as much as being stopped from force-feeding the people.
Ironically, the farmer protests themselves were unlikely to make a significant impact on 2022 voter choice or contribute to measurable discontent against the BJP. Remember, Jat MLAs in western UP — where the state’s discontent against the farm laws has been most palpable — remain overwhelmingly BJP nominations. With the importance of identity politics trumping almost all else, being against the farm laws was unlikely to be enough for this agrarian grouping to have jumped BJP ship, especially with no passing flotilla visible nearby. In 2017, months after being battered by demonetisation’s effects, voters — even in western UP’s sugarcane belt most affected by notebandi — still chose Modi’s party.
The repeal of the farm laws, however, changes this deceptively languid picture. With the share and influence of farmers in UP’s political class atomised and reduced over the years, the issue goes beyond farm laws and/or their repeal. It becomes one of a political force that isn’t immune to the rollback culture of earlier administrations after all.
Which is why, ironically, by their repeal — rather than the visible opposition amplified by the protests — Punjab and UP voters will have the farm laws on their mind. If the announcement of the repeal of farm laws was timed as a candid pitch for voters in Punjab and UP, it can now cut both ways. How the opposition in UP, and the ruling party and AAP in Punjab, tweak the narrative to its own advantage — ‘We are capable enough to push government policy back in its hole; we are capable enough to also push our (welfare) policies out into the open’ — is the next chapter of another day in national politics.